‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ – George M. Johnson

All Boys Aren’t Blue covers so many areas, but I would urge people to read it, even if you don’t see it as having direct relevance to you.

Part memoir, this series of reflections offer an insight into the author’s life as a child and growing up (as he calls himself) black and queer. We journey from an early memory of having his teeth kicked in at five years old to dealing with the death of a close friend at college and, along the way, get to hear about family members and the various events that he recalls shaping him as he grew up.

I was struck, more than anything, by the love and strength gained from family. Things may not have always been articulated, but there’s a clear sense that when it counted they would have your back. You might be held to account, but you would always be loved – and it strikes me that this may well be the best gift you can give someone.

So many of the memories were tinged with sadness and made me feel angry that they had to be experienced, but if all of us were to pinpoint moments that shaped us I’m sure that not all of them would be positive. As so eloquently written in the latter stages of the book, reading about the experiences of others can help us define ourselves and for this reason alone I would recommend this book. While so much was nothing like my own experiences, that search for yourself and the need to find your family will resonate with most readers.

I’m in awe of Nanny and the devotion she has so clearly inspired. I feel privileged to have been allowed to see inside our author’s head, and grateful to have been given this opportunity.

 

‘As Far As You’ll Take Me’ – Phil Stamper

 

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this before publication, and it’s another story that takes you through some of the highs and lows faced by many teens finding their way in the world.

Marty is not yet eighteen, a keen oboe player and struggling to feel comfortable with announcing his identity as a gay man to his conservative parents. With the help of his cousin, Marty concocts a rather elaborate scheme to step out into the world in his own terms.

From the outset I feared for Marty. I felt awful that his situation might still be a common one, and yet he retained such optimism about how he might start to live his life in the way he chose to.

We follow Marty to London where he tells his parents he’s attending a summer school. He’s not, but he hopes to play music and do whatever he needs to in order to live happily. We see him forge new friendships, and summon the strength to call out some less positive older friends. There’s a tentative relationship, but the thing that really struck me was the strength of character shown by Marty in working through a challenge, persevering with something scary and the determination to live the life he wants.

‘You Have a Match’ – Emma Lord

Emma Lord will, I’m sure, have another hit on her hands with this cute romance/contemporary about finding your interests and learning to accept yourself.

Abby is our main character. She’s a difficult person to get to know initially – even though we are seeing things from her point of view – because I always got a sense of her holding something back and not wanting to reveal her true thoughts about some key issues.

From early on we learn that she has two best friends, one of whom she has a serious crush on, and since the death of her beloved grandfather she is not coping in school. Her parents hover and try to help her, but we definitely get the impression of a family that is getting by rather than flourishing.

Our big twist comes early on when Abby helps her friend Leo (the one she has the not so secret crush on) by signing up to a DNA registry site. She is stunned to learn through the site that she has a sister. One that she knew nothing about.
Abby meets Savannah, her adopted sister, and learns that they appear to be nothing alike. The girls want to know what happened…so concoct a ridiculous scheme to allow them both to attend summer camp.

During this summer, Abby develops as a person. She finds her voice, starts to move on from the things holding her back and – eventually – finds romance. Things don’t go smoothly, and there’s a lot of people learning things because they happen to be in the right place at the wrong time that sometimes seems all too convenient.

The minor gripes aside, this was good fun and offered an entertaining story that also gave a fairly positive message to readers.

 

‘Plain Bad Heroines’ – Emily Danforth

I had seen reviews of this on NetGalley, and could not believe the UK release was so long after the US one…so I requested the audiobook on NetGalley, and when I was sent an ARC I jumped straight in.

I listened to the opening with such a sense of anticipation, and found myself captivated but also repulsed by the opening. Our story begins in 1902, with Flo and Clara – two young students of Brookhants School for Girls who have a shared fascination with a scandalous book. Unfortunately, their story ends abruptly, and in ways too horrific to dwell on. I dislike intensely the thought of being stung, so this was a particularly macabre scene with which to open the novel…though the story definitely intrigued me.

I soon found my tendency to read a couple of books at the same time, and my relative unfamiliarity with audiobooks, meant that I soon found myself totally lost by this. The shifting perspectives and chronology is one of the strengths of the story – having now finished it, I am in awe at how cleverly constructed this is – but trying to listen to it in short bursts with gaps in-between was not working out. It got set aside until I knew I could do it justice.

Finding myself with the arduous task of stripping a bathroom, what more excuse could I find but to try and use the time wisely? Back to it…

Second time round – and actually listening to it for hours at a time over two days – meant I found myself immersed in the story from the outset. Listening to/reading the stories surrounding Brookhants School for Girls and its mysterious ‘curse’ was a joy.

In the publicity material we are told that this is a story of parts – queer love story, Gothic horror and Hollywood satire. The focus is on a number of stories tied to Brookhants over time: that of Libby Brookhants and her lover, Alex; poor Flora and Cara and, lastly, Harper Harper and Audrey. The one thing that unites these three stories is the mysterious Brrokhants School for Girls and the scandalous memoir that seems to hold the key to the purported curse.

I don’t want to say too much because Danforth reveals all, and the way she chooses to do this gave me physical chills. I never felt as if I could tell exactly what was happening, and the events unfolding – in whichever timeline we were focused on – were beautifully described. The narrator on the audiobook gave a different perspective on the experience, and this is certainly a book I will have to physically read too.

A huge thank you to the publishers Harper Collins and NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to its release.

 

‘You’re Next’ – Kylie Schachte

Flora is a character who does not make things easy for herself. Headstrong and incredibly stubborn, she has a tendency to pursue her own ideas without really thinking about how her actions might impact on others.

When we’re first introduced to Flora her character is established quite quickly. She is bisexual, fancies herself as a detective and seems to have a tendency to get herself into hot water. She has not been the same since she went for a run and came across the dead body of a fellow student. Now, some time later, she gets caught up in a potentially dangerous case.

It begins when an ex calls her asking for help. Upon arriving at the place she is supposed to meet Ava, Flora discovers her almost dead on the floor. The police want to write it off as a mugging but Flora is convinced there’s more to it.

What follows is totally unrealistic, quite entertaining and happens at breakneck speed. We’re taken to underground fight clubs, risky encounters and someone who’s determined to keep their secrets at whatever cost. Full of good intentions, Flora puts her life – and the health of those closest to her – at risk.

Good fun, but definitely not to be taken too seriously.

 

‘Game Changer’ – Neal Shusterman

Game Changer will, I think, be one of those books that will polarise opinion. I’m grateful to NetGalley for granting me access to it prior to its scheduled February 2021 publication, and I think I would recommend it to people, but there are issues that make me wonder if this was quite the right way to get the intended result.

Our story focuses on Ash, a fairly typical privileged white American boy. He plays football. He has relatively open relationships with his friends and family, but there’s a sense of things being held back. This doesn’t cause undue concern, but then Ash is involved in a play that has far-reaching consequences. We journey with Ash as he experiences these strange events, the result of being knocked into another dimension.

Initially, until we have an explanation for what has happened, I was quite disengaged with this. Ash is not a particularly interesting character and I found his processing of events and the implications for him just a little patronising. There seemed to be just a little too much focus on him articulating his reasoning for behaving in the way he did, and trying to justify some of the choices he makes. He seems to comment lots on everyone around him, but to be quite unaware of his own shortcomings and this annoyed me on occasion.

Thankfully, quite early on we get some answers that what has happened to Ash is out of the realms of the ordinary. He has shifted reality and each time he does this he is able to change things. Sometimes this works well; sometimes not. Each time it happens, Ash learns something new about himself and the world around him. His only guides through this are twins (who are added to each time he changes things) keen to see if this time round the thing placed at the centre of the universe can make things better.

Ultimately, in each reality Ash experiences there are unpleasant things to address: racism, sexism, homophobia. You name the issue, we get it. Ash gets to live in different realities, each experience opening his eyes to the issues faced by many and the ignorance that many of us live in without even realising it. There was a clear sense of him growing as a person, albeit sometimes this feeling seeming forced on him.

After a rather slow start, the book became more engaging. I got quite caught up with Ash’s experiences and found the interactions between Ash and the other characters quite interesting. Unfortunately, though there were lessons to be learned – and Ash clearly set out his growing self-awareness in a way that often felt unnecessary – the fact that he ended up in the situation he did suggested that in a world of possibilities we will often settle for what is familiar enough to not be overly threatening. For me, this was not so much a Game Changer as a way of highlighting that change can be necessary and we should look for opportunities to improve things.

 

‘Lies Like Poison’ – Chelsea Pitcher

What a tangled web of lies and deceit these pages revealed…thank you to the publishers, Simon Schuster, and NetGalley for letting me read this prior to its October publication.

Poppy, Lily and Belladonna are our focus for this story and everything hinges on their relationship to Raven, their best friend. It isn’t immediately clear how this group formed or the reason for the dynamics between them – but we know they have a shared history, and would do anything to protect each other.

Our story opens with a body, that of Raven’s stepmother, being found. She has been poisoned with leaves of belladonna placed in her tea. There’s a recipe, written in fourteen year old Bella’s handwriting, on the table next to her that outlines the perfect poison. It would seem that Bella came good on her vow to protect her best friend Raven from his abusive stepmother.

It all seems clear-cut, but then things start unravelling. Poppy – who now calls herself Jack – claims Bella was with her on the night of the murder. The police don’t believe her as Poppy was the one who first went to the police years ago with claims that Raven’s stepmother was hurting him. She is told to go away and think about her story…and determines to work out what happened.

We have our story split into three distinct parts – the truth according to Bella, Jack and then Lily. As we read each story we unpick the various deceits these characters (and those around them) have told, and learn more about the complex background of each.

There was a fairytale quality to this story, and while it focuses on murder it also charts the journey each character has towards acceptance of themselves and their situation. Mercurial in tone, constantly shifting and leaving us with a sense of uncertainty, this was a story that delivered a lot more than it promised. I can’t wait to see what others make of it.

 

‘The Pull of the Stars’ – Emma Donoghue

 

The Pull of the Stars would be a great read at any time, but as we find ourselves still fighting Coronavirus every page felt important.

Set in Ireland, 1918, we focus on a small part of a much wider problem. Still fighting the ravages of war, the effects of this flu sweeping the nation are evident everywhere. We see them through the eyes of nurse Julia, a woman dedicated to her patients on the maternity ward as she goes about her work.

I was struck by the hopelessness of the situation these people were in. The cheery slogans urging people how to fight this seemed so at odds with what they were experiencing due to poverty or a lack of social care that I felt real anger about how such situations are handled (more a response to what’s happening now than through any knowledge of the time).

From the opening pages I found myself fascinated by the little details Donoghue records about life on the maternity ward in the grip of a pandemic. There was so much to find bleak and dispiriting about this – with the characters we encounter having a high death rate – but there were also some beautiful moments that will stay with me awhile. The joy of the singing between Bridie and the orderly, the elation at a healthy birth after a problematic experience and the sense of hope found from the eating of the blood orange her brother brought all the way from Italy and saved for her birthday.

While there was a lot to find frustrating about this, the time overwhelmingly was one of resolve and determination to wring the life out of your time on this world. A good lesson.

Thanks to the author, publishers and NetGalley for sending me an ARC in exchange for my honest thoughts.

‘Cinderella is Dead’ – Kalynn Bayron

 

The story of Cinderella is one that everyone knows. But what would you do if the story was a lie? That is the premise of this story, and it was one I was really excited about reading so I was thrilled to get an ARC from NetGalley to read in exchange for my honest thoughts.

Our story focuses on Sophia, a young girl who lives in Lille where everyone abides by the rules set. Every year girls have to attend the Annual Ball – if they are chosen they must be subservient to their husband, and if they are not chosen nobody hears from them again. Though some recognise the problems with such a regime, none seem prepared to stand up to fight it.

Sophia would like nothing more than to live with her childhood friend, Erin. When the time comes for them to attend the Ball, things don’t quite go to plan. Sophia escapes, and takes refuge in Cinderella’s mausoleum where she is found by Cinderella’s only living descendant, Constance. Buoyed by their sense of belief, and hope for a different future, the girls take on the challenge of confronting the King. They take on a journey fraught with danger, where nobody is quite what they claim to be, in a desperate attempt to change the lives of girls in the future for the better.

While the story follows a rather predictable path, there were attempts to offer something new. We got strong female characters who weren’t afraid to stand up for their beliefs. There was the odd twist to illustrate the idea that sometimes people can hide their true desires from others, and there were hints that people can change things if they are true to their convictions. Perhaps the Cinderella retelling offers less than it might, but it was certainly an interesting read.

‘Boyfriend Material’ – Alexis Hall

Boyfriend Material was just what I needed right now…funny, a bit silly, romance in dollops (and not always where you’d expect it) and that feeling that things would work out just the way you knew they would even if there were bumps along the way.

Our story has two rather misguided souls as our central characters. Luc – son of two ex-rock stars, and who has a tendency to disgrace himself in public – and Oliver – lawyer who’s determined to keep control of everything around him. These two have met before, and not got on particularly well. But they are thrown together when Luc needs a ‘respectable’ date for a work event. Oliver agrees to be his fake boyfriend…so it’s just a matter of time before they end up together for real.

A bit like a rather over-the-top TV sitcom, there were somewhat excruciating jokes and some cliched characters. There were scenes where you could pretty accurately predict what was coming, almost down to the jokes. I didn’t particularly like the representation of the wealthy characters (too many cheap shots at something they seemed to have little awareness of), but the lurking irritations were very much on the outskirts of the central story.

Luc and Oliver might be infuriating in real life, but they seemed to bring out the best in each other and I was definitely rooting for them. Don’t expect anything unexpected here and you’ll be happy.